Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery is a destination graveyard, so beautiful that it’s a tourist attraction in its own right. Established in 1850, it’s a splendid example of the garden cemeteries that came into fashion in the nineteenth century.
On a trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you’re probably going to want to visit the Harley Davidson Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum, as well as take a beer tour. But be sure to leave plenty of time to see Forest Home Cemetery, a jewel of a graveyard that’s one of the most beautiful in the U.S.
Forest Home is a garden cemetery, part of a nineteenth century movement that made graveyards into botanical centers and parks as well as the final resting place for loved ones.
In prior centuries, most people were buried haphazardly in municipal plots, with no record of individual graves and no attempt to keep families together. Church members had a more dignified final resting place: those of highest social or religious status were interred underneath the floor of the building, those of lesser rank in the area just outside the church, and the lowest classes near the exterior wall of the churchyard. Individuals who had committed suicide (which was considered a mortal sin) were on the other side of the wall entirely.
But as the years passed, this solution proved problematic, as more and more bodies were piled on top of each other. During floods, the coffins sometimes broke open and bodies emerged on the surface—a source of contamination for water supplies, as well as a disadvantage when the church was trying to attract new members.
In the early nineteenth century, all of this changed when graveyards became cemeteries—a term derived from the Greek word for dormitory (as in, the bodies are “sleeping,” not dead). And those no-frills burial grounds started to be replaced by green, wooded enclaves on the outskirts of cities, with graves marked by elaborate statuary and bordered by decorative trees, bushes, and flowers, many of them exotic and imported species, so that the grounds became a botanical garden as well as a place for bodies.
At a time when most urban areas were dusted with soot, packed with people, and filled with the stench of garbage and excrement, this new style of cemetery beckoned the living as well as the dead.
The first garden cemetery in the United States was Mount Auburn Cemetery near Cambridge, Massachusetts, created in 1831, setting a fashion that was emulated in places that included Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Bellefontaine in St. Louis, Oakland in Atlanta, Graceland in Chicago—plus Forest Home in Milwaukee.
Wealthy Episcopalians established Forest Home in 1850, wanting an appropriately dignified spot for their earthly remains. They bought seventy-four wooded acres on the outskirts of the city and planned a cemetery that would be a public park as well as a place for the deceased (the Episcopalians allowed others to buy plots if they had enough cash). They envisioned it as a place to savor the genteel and poignant pleasures of contemplating one’s mortality, a favorite pastime of the Victorians.
Through the next decades, Forest Home flourished as the moneyed citizens of the city competed to erect ever-grander markers.
“From the 1870s through the turn of the century, Forest Home was the scene of a monumental outbreak of one-upmanship,” writes John Gurda in Cream City Chronicles: Stories of Milwaukee’s Past. “Obelisks, pyramids, crosses, columns, and spheres sprouted like mushrooms after a rain, each larger than the last.”
A liquor wholesaler put up an eighty-four-ton stone pillar bearing a statue of a Greek goddess. Emil Blatz, a brewer, topped him with a five-hundred-ton mausoleum with a tiled roof and marble walls. It stood across the lane from the monuments of two other Milwaukee brewing dynasties, the Pabst and the Schlitz families, creating a triad that was inevitably dubbed the Beer Baron Corner.
A staff of fifty men tended the grounds of Forest Home, which included ornamental ponds, fountains, elaborate gardens, and seventeen miles of footpaths and carriageways. Tame deer and peacocks added to the pastoral serenity.
The people of Milwaukee—even the ones who couldn’t afford to have loved ones buried there—flocked to the cemetery for relaxation and entertainment, taking the streetcar line that had been constructed to it. On weekends the grounds were so crowded that tickets were sold; one Sunday afternoon eight thousand people showed up to stroll under the trees.
Forest Home isn’t quite so popular today, but it remains a beloved part of Milwaukee life. It now includes 200 acres and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
You can take a self-guided tour or one of more than a dozen guided tours offered by volunteers during the summer. In addition to the Beer Baron tour, another focuses on Milwaukee Suffragists, for example, and one on Civil War veterans. Any of them are worth doing, especially if you’re a fan of both history and cemeteries, as I am.
The tours are a wonderful way to learn about Milwaukee’s history and explore the peaceful environs of Forest Home Cemetery, which is as beautiful today as it was in the nineteenth century.
For more information on the garden cemetery movement, I hope you’ll read my book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper, which is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.